The state proposal that would require lobstermen to use weak rope and add more traps per line in deep waters to reduce the risk of entangling endangered right whales is our “line in the sand,” according to Maine’s top fishing regulator.

Commissioner Patrick Keliher would like to keep the state’s lobster industry out of the courts. A legal showdown with deep-pocketed whale advocates is risky, he said, especially given inflammatory language used in recent federal rulings.

But that is where Maine will end up if federal officials reject this plan in favor of a task force proposal to severely restrict lobster buoy lines, Keliher said.

“This is our line in the sand,” Keliher told fishermen Wednesday in South Portland. “If they don’t accept this, based on the conversation I had with the governor today, I’m sure we’re going to be in a federal court fighting this out.”

The meeting was the third this week in which the Department of Marine Resources presented its latest whale protection plan to the state’s high-value lobster industry, which landed 120 million pounds worth $485 million in 2018.

The industry is divided over the state proposal to the National Marine Fisheries Service on how to reduce the risk of right whale entanglement in lobster gear. The fisheries service is expected to issue new whale protection regulations next year.

Scientists believe about 400 right whales remain. The species has been on the brink of extinction before, most recently in 1992, when its population bottomed out at 295. It rebounded to about 500 in 2010, but since then its numbers have decreased.

Regulators say even one right whale death a year could doom the species.

Some say the Maine fishery isn’t the problem. They blame the 30 right whale deaths over the last three years on ship strikes and entanglement by other fisheries, such as gill-netters, and those for Cape Cod lobster and, most often, Canadian crab and lobster.

Some fishermen at the South Portland meeting cheered the plan. One gave Keliher a standing ovation, saying the new proposal was much better for the lobster fleet than the task force plan rolled out in August that called for 50 percent fewer buoy lines.

But fishermen in Ellsworth and Waldoboro, the site of the first two meetings this week, urged Keliher to resist federal pressure to make concessions that would hurt lobster fishermen when they pose no real threat to the whale.

Some called on Gov. Janet Mills and Attorney General Aaron Frey, Mills’ successor in that office, to join the legal battle that environment groups are waging in federal courts to compel regulators to restrict the fishery to protect whales.

“Grow a backbone,” one lobstermen told Keliher. “Don’t give them anything now.”

But Keliher said he believed the state had to give up something, and it is better that Maine decides what it should give up rather than a federal regulator or judge who is fearful of being the one who presides over the end of a species.

“The word extinction is very powerful,” Keliher told the Waldoboro audience. “The federal government is not going to give up on a species.”

The draft Maine proposal includes five key elements intended to reduce the risk of injury or death to the endangered whales and collect data that state regulators believe will prove the Maine fishery does not threaten right whales.

The plan would require fishermen to trawl up – put more traps on buoy lines set farther from shore – effectively reducing by 25 percent the number of surface-to-seabed ropes in the deeper waters where whales are more likely to be found.

Lobstermen would have to add weak points to buoy lines – at least two for anybody fishing in offshore waters, and one for those who fish within three miles of Maine’s coast – to make it more likely that entangled whales can break free.

State lobstermen would mark their gear purple, a color distinct from those used by other states, to help regulators prove that Maine lobstering rope is not killing right whales. A second green mark would be added on all offshore gear for identification.

All Maine lobstermen would have to report their landings, where they fish, and the kind of gear they fish, including the size of the rope and number of traps per trawl. The law currently requires reports from only 10 percent of state lobstermen.

Finally, all Maine lobster boats that fish in federal waters would be tracked.

Keliher said he will take a few days to decompress and consider all the testimony he has heard from lobstermen this week before deciding if he will make any changes to the state plan before he submits it to the National Marine Fisheries Service later this month.

The state is already moving ahead with the gear-marking part of the proposal. With approval from an agency advisory board in hand, Keliher has finalized the new gear-marking rules, which fishermen have until Sept. 1, 2020, to complete.

The board of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association will meet Thursday night to take an official position on the state proposal. Leadership seems to like it better than the task force plan, but it is unclear if that will be enough to get its stamp of approval.

The Maine Lobstering Union has criticized the state’s plan, claiming the trawling up requirements for offshore fishermen put the crews and their profits at risk. Longer strings and weak links will lead to more lost gear and accidents, they say.

The bulk of Maine’s 5,000 state licensed commercial lobstermen, or about 3,800 of them, fish inside state waters, and won’t be impacted by the plan. About 1,200 have federal permits to fish in offshore waters, and most don’t fish there all year.

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